British director Michael Winterbottom’s latest project The Trip, a “semi-real” comedy starring Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan as loose versions of themselves, has been split into six half-hour episodes and the first has already shown on BBC2. Entitled “The Inn at Whitewell”, it consisted primarily of loving shots of the bleak northern countryside and comedic duels between the two, in which they debated the merits of their own Michael Caine impressions. I’ve seen Brydon live and one of the funniest elements of his act was his frequent return to amateur, but wonderfully accurate, impressions of various famous personalities. This was awkward comedy but essentially heart-warming, harmless stuff.
Winterbottom’s summer release, The Killer Inside Me, was far from harmless of course. It conjured column after column of controversy. And the sort of identity doubts Coogan suffers from in The Trip are sedate and ordinary compared to the internal divisions lurking beneath Casey Affleck’s cold features as Deputy Sheriff Lou Ford. In a southern, drawling voiceover at the beginning of the film Ford muses that growing up in a small town, the problem is that everybody thinks they know you. This small town and its Texan desert surroundings are as beautifully framed as the rolling hills and roads in The Trip, and evoke the period American details of diners and dunes perfectly when combined with the classic 50s tunes on the soundtrack. However these familiar hits playing in the prelude to shocking violence is one of the most sinister aspects of the film.
Of course the violence itself is graphic and hard to watch at times, and the unflinching portrayal of beatings sparked the flurries of protest on the film’s release. Opponents of the film will view the most brutal scenes as unnecessary and gratuitous. However whilst their intensity may take something away from the viewing experience by making it extremely uncomfortable at points, it would be foolhardy to label the violence as meaningless. For it is undoubtedly aiming at something deeper than simply a sick visual spectacle. The motives behind the violence and the victims’ reactions are more chilling than the blows and injuries themselves. The notion that we are all capable of such acts and that the human personality is multiple is alluded to in the title of the movie. This idea is frightening and made more so when we watch Ford convince himself of the need to kill his hooker lover, as part of a grand plan he must carry out, whilst another part of him is madly, compulsively in love with her. His internal justification of the murders is baffling, unsettling and terrifying.
And both of the women Ford kills in the film genuinely believe him to be a good man. They are surprised by his outbursts of punches and in disbelief they do not turn against him. In fact with their dying breaths they wish to understand, to help him. As the viewer you wonder how they did not see the signs, the hints of violence beneath the seemingly kind law enforcer expressed in sado-masochistic beatings during sex. But then part of the terror is that from their perspective, trapped within the relationship and viewing things through a narrow lens, you could not see how far the domestic violence would go. It is the “domestic” peace of it all that also proves extremely discomforting. His female victims are unsuspecting and the murders take place in a quiet, quintessential 50s community. Life in such an environment might even seem boring and the expression of disinterested calm on Affleck’s face throughout most of the film, even during the killings at times, is tremendously unnerving. His performance as a particular type of calculated, unfeeling serial killer deserves praise.
But of course Lou Ford claims not to be “unfeeling”. He professes love for the sultry Jessica Alba and clearly has affectionate at least for his long term love Amy Stanton, played by Kate Hudson. Both actresses do an admirable job of trying to convincingly portray characters that are for the most part enthralled, rather than repulsed by, the violence. Despite his feelings though the twisted plan inside his head requires him to kill and in the aftermath he rides out the suspicions of others cool as a cucumber. The pace and tone of The Killer Inside Me reflect this mellow attitude and adds to its disturbing effects. However whilst obviously a high quality piece of film making, Winterbottom’s controversial creation could be more engaging, even after an explosive finale. It is neither a gripping thriller nor truly horrific chiller, but it is undoubtedly well made and thought provoking.
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I saw both Disney Pixar’s Up and the latest comic offering from Will Ferrell, The Other Guys this week. Needless to say these two films are poles apart in many ways, but they are also both funny, entertaining and worth a look.
Up first is Up, then. I was keen to see this simply for the renowned beauty of Pixar’s animation. I had absolutely loved the look and style of The Incredibles, a Pixar picture based upon ordinary humans as opposed to toys, or fish, or cars. I liked seeing ordinary suburban objects vividly rendered in marvellous colour, as well as the wonderful expressions upon a human, animated face. Up follows elderly widower Carl Fredricksen from the very ordinary start point of his home on a varied, beautiful, unpredictable adventure to South America. At first Up really does dwell on the perfection of its visuals, with a dialogue-less montage depicting Carl’s entire married life feeling like a work of art; a mini-film in itself showing off the talents of the team at Pixar. However as always with these films there are dollops of sentiment that wedge lumps firmly in the throat and bring tears to the eyes. As with The Incredibles the action sequences are also genuinely gripping and jolting as well as visually stunning. Perhaps most impressively these action set pieces fit into a unique and original story and don’t feel out of place. Carl steers his house, elevated by numerous multi-coloured helium balloons, all the way to Paradise Falls, the destination of his and his wife’s childhood dreams, negotiating bruising storms and encounters with strange creatures along the way.
For a children’s film, Up is incredibly touching and engaging. It is not surprising that the film is often funny given its intended tone and audience, but it is impressive that the gags roll alongside a heart-warming story of an elderly man looking for purpose in life and not expecting to find it. The whole thing uses the nostalgia of its central character and the soundtrack often sounds like the sort of thing you’d hear on a ride at a classic, retro fun fair, with clever variations on a repeated main theme for sad or happy, wondrous moods. The film rarely drags, despite there being few actually hilarious moments and this may be due to the overall gloss of the visuals, as well as some excellent voice acting. There is a point where you fear the narrative may fizzle out, but some superb climatic action sequences resurrect things. Overall Up is a tender tale, with some occasionally insightful dialogue and a healthy sprinkling of originally executed ideas, such as the stream of consciousness talking dogs. And of course it looks marvellous.
The Other Guys is not heart-warming and indeed relies more upon cringe inducing humour at times, but it shares with Up a feeling of originality in its storytelling, along with some riveting action scenes. For me the strongest point of The Other Guys was its ability not to take itself too seriously. It was simultaneously a cop movie, an action movie and a comedy movie, as well as aiming piss taking swipes at all these genres and more with some brilliant gags. I cannot usually tolerate the onscreen presence of Will Ferrell and I do my best to avoid his films like the plague. But alongside tough guy Mark Wahlberg, brilliantly embracing a comic role, and outside of a sports setting, I bought into the guy as a comic genius at times. I cannot remember all the successful jokes in the movie but amongst the best was a silent fight at a funeral, a hilarious, not at all subtle exchange about a mug with the label; “FBI-Female Body Inspector” and a “bad cop-bad cop” routine. All of these moments and more had me and others in the cinema laughing loudly.
Unusually for such a film the plot to The Other Guys doesn’t feel completely redundant either, which is an added bonus for a film brimming with hilarious moments and ensures it is something more than a collection of comedy sketches. Admittedly lingering flashbacks on both Wahlberg’s character mistakenly shooting a star baseball player and Ferrell’s college career as a pimp do feel a little like detached sketches, but all in all they just about masquerade as relevant back-story, especially when funny. The action sequences are either big, brash and completely ridiculous, as with the car chase at the beginning featuring “the guys”, Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne Johnson. Or they are big, brash and slightly less ridiculous, vaguely fitting into the plot and wowing the audience, for example a climatic, clichéd gun fight is followed by a “grand theft auto” inspired car chase with an impressive, destructive collision. A somewhat baffling credit sequences detailing the excess and waste of the world’s bankers belatedly aims to give The Other Guys a moral compass. Steve Coogan’s amusing financial swindler was certainly not treated as some evil tycoon within the film, but simply as an idiot. In many ways The Other Guys is an idiotic film, which idiots and those who enjoy the mishaps of fools alike will be able to enjoy and find hilarious. However I think it’s a cleverly composed piece of stupidity.
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It’s difficult to precisely pinpoint the moment I fully embraced the mantra “don’t get sad, get mad”. It may have been after my first THRRIP (Totally Humiliating Romantic Rejection In Public), or my second, third or fourth, or it may have been at the doctors after being diagnosed with yet another niggling ailment, or that time on holiday. Yeah that time. Anyway it’s an incredibly liberating and practically useful little philosophical phrase that never fails to help when intoned in worrying hushed tones to oneself at times of crisis. Normally it’s best to redirect your waves of gloom into stinging volleys of verbal venom at something or someone else. However if you can’t quite manage this straight away there is the intermediate stage of self-loathing as opposed to self-pity. It’s surprising how much better it feels to mentally pound yourself, the equivalent of smashing your knee caps to bits with a hammer, than to sit and curse your bad luck and the unfairness of the world and stay true to some ideal that ultimately makes you a worthless martyr. That’s a bit like watching Comic Relief in black and white without the Comic bits and you feel so guilty you want to ring up, only you can’t because you’re tied to a metal chair in a freezing igloo with only cockroaches and old copies of Bella with outdated fictions about the Loose Women for company. I mean you can find the fun in bashing anything with a hammer.
Obviously though it’s better not to destroy yourself, no matter how fun it is, but that’s the beauty of the mantra “don’t get sad, get mad”. Anger is far more productive than depressing sadness and can usually be channelled like a satisfying stream of hot piss as opposed to the dreary, relentless drip of sadness. If you let it that drip will erode your soul, whereas that stream of piss will just make it a stink for a while, and people will think you’re a prick, but you’ll feel better. Anger gets things done. They may not be worthwhile things but it will get you out of bed in the morning. Countless critics for example seem to make a living out of analysing and ripping to shreds pointless content, such as ITV’s new morning show Daybreak. I mean really who cares about its quality, who actually expected it to tackle the news seriously and intelligently as the producers claimed before the revamp? But what would be the point in collapsing into weepy hysterics about the futility of life, symbolised by Adrian Chiles’ empty autocue reading posture, or Sharon Osborne’s incompetence standing in for Loraine Kelly? Much better to write scathing, fury fuelled critiques that might just brighten the day of all those who tolerate such comfort TV, whilst secretly seething at its failings.
I have to say though that I have realised I was exaggerating to say I “fully embraced” the mantra “don’t get sad, get mad”. The little method outlined above to deal with life’s ups and downs really just dips its toes in the rivers of possibility. Michael Caine’s character Harry Brown, in director Daniel Barber’s 2009 debut of the same name, fully adopts the philosophy and dives deep into those waters out of grim necessity. Harry has more reason than most to be sad, and therefore extremely mad. He lives in London’s hellish underbelly and watches, his face illuminated in the gentle amber glow of the street lights, as his neighbourhood is terrorised and ruled by mindless thugs. And what really irks Harry is that they are totally mindless. Harry was in the Marines in Northern Ireland and saw ghastly things in that warzone, but that violence was always motivated by deeply held beliefs. In this modern hell he watches as his life is torn apart by bored teenagers, snatching filthy pleasures and dangerous highs where they can get them.
Caine was full of praise for Barber’s directorial skill on his debut after this film’s release and that praise is mostly justified. That is not to say his first film was perfect but it is a solidly gripping and at times moving tale. The film opens strikingly with a random shooting, seen from the frenzied perspective of drugged up youths on a fast moving, noisy bike. The incident comes to a crashing halt and despite the horror of it all the audience can feel the thrill and therefore the twisted motivation behind the criminals’ actions. Barber then swiftly contrasts this dizzying, dangerous high with the monotonous, lonely day to day existence of Harry Brown in his drab flat on a graffiti splattered estate, with only chess games at the pub and visits to his dying wife to fill the dragging bags of time. When Harry’s only real mate, his chess buddy, is murdered standing up to the thugs and the police investigation quickly stumbles in an excellent, frustrating interrogation scene, Harry resolves to begin unpicking the threads of his local underworld. Actually just to back up my earlier theory Harry tries drink first, feels sorry for himself and then is forced to act by a knife wielding hoodie. Sad first, then get mad.
Now if the idea of a pensioner getting things done, pulling out the roots of crime through strength of will alone, seems a little implausible to you, then you’re not alone. Even though it was Michael Caine, once so imposing in Get Carter, so assured in The Italian Job, I was sceptical. But Caine’s performance, vulnerable puppy dog eyes and all, ultimately draws you in. Indeed this is a very well acted production. David Bradley puts in a solid turn as always as Caine’s murdered friend but most impressive for me were the police officers involved in the investigation. Emily Mortimer’s well meaning Detective and streetwise Charlie Creed-Miles as her Sergeant make an intriguing double-act, whilst Iain Glen as the superior officer in charge is totally convincing in his brief scenes trundling out the official line with cold hearted efficiency. If the film has a weak point it is perhaps the crude characterisation of the yobs, whose performances are somewhat predictable. But then again the slightly heightened and simplified version of grim estate life may simply be making the point that scum exists and even the police recognise the best they can do is to be seen to be doing something about and to contain it within areas beyond help. The actions scenes, whilst not perfect, are hard hitting and gripping. The film builds to a climax in which the estate becomes a battleground, with shield wielding riot police standing helplessly against the hordes of savage youths. Again this feels simplified but the film concludes well with a satisfying twist. Barber definitely deserves more opportunities in the director’s chair, if only for the vivid vision of a grimy, sodden and hidden London that is present throughout.
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